Anyone involved in managing small projects is familiar with the age-old question of what project management (PM) tool to use. Microsoft Project is the gold standard, but it is a lot of tool to throw at a small project. This post compares 5 online PM tools.

I regularly use MS Project to set up projects: it’s nice how it knows to skip weekends and link the start of a task to the end of another. But then I usually copy the data into Excel and manage it there. It’s easier to use, and easier to share with my clients and resources. However for those clients who want a weekly synch, sending Excel files and screenshots back and forth isn’t so great, so I went online to look for an online solution. Mainly I wanted a good way to track project that was also easy for my team to share and my client to see.

I looked at the following five online solutions—in this order:

1. BaseCamp

I checked out the demo, and found this to be a nice and simple tool with a nice iPad-based companion app. Its approach is to track “to-do” items, but not strictly tracking projects. The price was right ($49/month for unlimited users). But I have 20+ projects at a time, all with many subtasks with different deliverables and resources and spread over multiple clients, so this wasn’t robust enough for me. Also, maybe it’s just because I’m so comfortable in Excel, this business of entering and maintaining my project data using entry forms instead of a sheet/matrix/table is cumbersome! So I looked for something else…

2. QuickBase

I signed up for the trial to look at the demo. This tool, brought to you by the good people at Intuit, is a very mature, full-blown project management and collaboration program. It looks to have a steep learning curve, but would really be a great tool and is probably worth the investment of time to master it. But it seemed to be nearly as complex as MS Project, so is overkill for my small projects, and the deal-killer for me is that it is expensive (over $200/month). So on with my search…

3. Zoho Projects

This is a neat looking small-footprint program. The price is low, but you’re charged per-user so you can’t just invite your whole team to the party. Similar to BaseCamp, its focus is on the tasks, not the project. I liked its collaborative calendar. I set up a few sample projects, each with 10 or so tasks. Then when I looked at the dashboard and the reports, all those tasks were all mixed in with each other – what a mess. I only spent about an hour on the site so maybe I was doing something wrong, but nope—I don’t think this is the tool I’m looking for. Not robust enough, and frankly not easy enough to use for my needs. Back to the search…

4. WorkZone

This program looks very interesting. It’s not as “overkill” as Quickbase, but much more robust than Zoho and BaseCamp. By now I was sick of signing up for free trials and looking at demos, so after my preliminary toe-tipping went straight to the price question. I could not find any pricing information, so used their contact form to ask. A friendly human replied immediately, but rather than sending me the info I requested, asked for a call to learn more about my company. I turned down the request for a phone call, and after an ensuing email thread (to which I always got extremely prompt responses), I learned that their price is $200/month + a $400 setup fee. This is way too expensive, which is too bad, because WorkZone looked great from the very tiny glimpse I got. I thought I was done and I had come up empty handed, then a friend suggested Google Docs…

5. Google Docs

Skeptical that I’d be satisfied, I went to my Google account, created a new spreadsheet, and listed all my projects. I added some columns for the overall status, due dates, and current tasks. Then I created a separate sheet for each project, and just copied in the stuff that I already was tracking in Excel. Then I went back to the first sheet and added formulas for it to pull a current project snapshot up from the individual project sheets. Invited the team to access it – and Viola! The price is great (Zero), there’s nearly no learning curve because I’m already a spreadsheet user, security is fine, and my whole team can collaborate.

Here’s a small demo of an editorial project using Google Docs

The moral of the story

For a true project management solution that is online and allows for collaboration, from my quick investigation, I’d suggest WorkZone if the price tag doesn’t bother you. But if you think $2400/year is a bit steep for software, take a look at Google Docs. As long as you’re comfortable doing stuff in Excel, then you already know how to use it. The more I look into it, the more I think I’ll explore additional Google collaboration resources.

What online project-tracking solution do you use? Do you use any of the tools I looked at? What did you think?

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